If you're looking for a general introduction to the history of art in western civilization you can't do much better than Art of the Western World, a nine-part documentary which appeared on PBS in 1989 and is now available on a three-DVD set from Athena. Narrated by historian Michael Wood, the series moves from the Greeks and Romans through the Middle Ages and the Renaissance right up to modern times with stops at every significant period in between. It looks at architecture, sculpture, painting and even some of the more modern forms like collages and installations.
The whole set runs for 513 minutes, but even at that length, it covers a field so vast that it would be hard to do more than provide an overview, a kind of guide for further study. Still, in an accompanying bonus booklet, producer Perry Miller Adato insists that it is more than a simple introduction. With all the scholarly expertise gathered for each episode, he is confident that "it can supply students who already know the subject with new insights."
He may well be right. Recognizing the impossibility of showing the viewer everything of importance in any given period, the filmmakers have chosen to spend their time focusing on several representative examples in greater detail. They pay some attention to other pieces to give some idea of the breadth of period, but their focus is on specific works and their place in the culture of the period. For example, in the episode on the classical ideal in Greece they feature the Parthenon, for the Gothic period, the cathedral at Chartres, and for the early Renaissance, Donatello's statue of David. Later episodes take intensive looks at David's "Death of Marat", "Seurat's Pointillist masterpiece "A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte," and Picasso's revolutionary Cubist innovation, "Les demoiselles d'avignon." Concentrating their efforts in this way allows them the kind of close analysis that often yields "new insights." One may not always agree with their choices, but none seems completely egregious.
Rather than cluttering up the screen with talking heads, they generally find one or two experts on any given episode—professors, curators, art historians—to explain the significance of what we are being shown. For the most part their choices are excellent; not only do they know their stuff, but their explanations are usually lucid and their presentations are quite animated. This is not to say that some of their commentary is not open to question; what discussion of art is not subject to opinion? Watching Robin Middleton from Columbia University romping around Syon House is nothing if not entertaining. Listening to Griselda Pollock's Feminist critique of 19th century French female nudes is illuminating. Italian art historian Germano Celant's assertion that post-modern art demands faith from its audience in the same way that religion does, that if a work is in a museum you have to have faith that it belongs there, is nothing if not controversial. Wood, himself, is an engaging host who projects his own sense of the import of his subject.